/ 30 June 2017

Bread, chicken and the vulnerability of tough little children

Friday editor Milisuthando Bongela.
Milisuthando (Photo: Delwyn Verasamy/ M&G)

At the beginning of winter, I find myself sitting on the stoep of a house owned by a wonderful old woman, catching the sun’s rays as they race towards noon. At 83, she has finally manifested her dying wish, which is for the Lord to take her to her husband, her friends and some of her children. This is the week of her funeral. Her five children, many grandchildren and extended family have gathered to clean up her large, butternut-coloured property, in preparation for her funeral. I am one of them.

As I sit on her stoep surveying the yard, I see three children walk towards the gate of the house. Two boys and a girl, the older two a curious distance ahead of the youngest one, the little girl.

The oldest boy is about nine years old and the younger a scrawny six-year-old. Like most village kids, baphatshe imilenze, their clothes and hair dirty from playing outside nokuzibhuqabhuqa engceni. It’s not that I’m trying to eavesdrop on an argument that the boys are having but upon hearing what they were saying, I pay attention to their rather rugged speech.

The nine-year-old: “Hayi sund’nyela mna, andizukujongana nalento yakokwenu, andiyotshomi yakho.” (No, don’t fuck with me, I’m not going to look after that thing from your family. I’m not your friend.) He says this about three times before they get to the wide open wire gate.

The six-year-old in response: “Hayi nam andizumjonga tyhini, kudala ndimjongile.” (No, I’m also not going to look after her, I’ve been looking after her for a while.)

Imagine this conversation in high-pitched voices.

During their wayfaring argument, the little girl is lagging behind, silenced by the stroke of the midday sun. As soon as they are inside the yard, they sit on one of the grass banks, joining two other older children. When the little girl joins them, the six-year-old picks her up and puts her on the opposite side of a dusty path on another grass bank about 10m away.

Satisfied with themselves, they sit talking about random things and shouting across the yard at other children their age while the little girl sits alone next to a newly made wheelchair ramp whose cement has not yet dried. I don’t know these children and am not sure who they belong to but the little girl does resemble her older brother, who resembles one of the many makotis in the kitchen, so we might be related.

At this moment, I’m called inside because my mother and I are about to leave for East London and the makotis have dished up fresh bakpot bread and umleqwa onomhluzu (chicken and stock). When my food arrives, I eat a little and break some bread and a piece of chicken for the little girl. I go outside and put it in her hands, which can hardly hold the bread or the chicken.

My childlessness doesn’t advise me that I probably need to feed her because she’s actually a baby. Anyway, I go back inside but before I sit down, I hear the boys running towards her. I watch this scene unfold through the lace curtain.

The oldest boy grabs the chicken from the child while her brother bites from the bread. The baby is silent and shows no resistance. I get up and stand by the door. They don’t see me. Maybe it’s the dust cloud they have made around this child. I then loudly ask them if they weren’t the same people who said they aren’t going to look after “this thing’’?

I walk towards them and they all freeze. Don’t ask me how a little piece of chicken has managed to glisten all the mouths of all of these children in such a short space of time. I then repeat to them the exact things they said about the little girl when they thought nobody was listening. I wish I could describe the look of collective shame on their faces: for being caught red-handed and knowing that they have done something wrong.

We stand there, all frozen for a few seconds. I tell them to leave her alone and they scurry off. But I can’t finish my food because I can’t help but realise that, unlike an adult who would have probably denied it or said something rude, the children were literally swallowed up by shame or something that reminds me of their innocence. They were all vulnerable in that moment of being exposed. I don’t exactly feel like a hero.

So I go to the kitchen and get some more bread, divide some chicken into little mounds, dip small pieces of bread in the stock and hand it out to them, two more having joined the group. I stand there with them and we all eat soggy salty bread. Then I go inside to get some of my Twizza, and return to give them sips one after another. It seems we are all satisfied at this point, including the baby, who has livened up a bit.

As I turn around to take the dishes to the kitchen, one of the older girls can’t help herself: “S’cel’amathambo sisi!” (Can we have the bones sisi?). I look down, and see that there are exactly five chicken bones, one for each of them.

Iimbali! is a space for stories and other narrative-based social analysis